The UK research landscape is in a state of flux and decisions made now will dictate its direction for many years

The times they are a-changin’. Bob Dylan’s anthem for change, once lustily voiced by revolutionary students on university campuses throughout the land, now echoes round those institutions in rather more weary tones. The pace of change being ushered in in the UK research sector by a Conservative government emboldened by its new majority is breathtaking. It’s likely the decisions being made by this government will resonate for years to come.

As Chemistry World goes to press, the plans for how much money the nation’s science base will be allotted over the next five years will be sitting on the chancellor’s desk. George Osborne has said many times that he is a great believer in the power of science to transform the UK’s economy. But it remains to be seen whether this zeal for science will mean an end to the freeze on funding from the last parliament. Given the government’s commitment to an austerity budget, which will cut a further £20 billion from the country’s public spending, that seems unlikely. 

Readers will likely already have the answers to how UK science has fared by the time this magazine lands on their doormats, but as a number of key government departments have reportedly agreed cuts of around 30%, a flat-cash settlement may be the best that can be hoped for.  

Beyond the effects of the spending review, other changes are in the pipeline. It looks fairly certain now that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) is for the chop. The recent higher education green paper suggests this course of action and Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society, concurs in his review of research funding. The green paper also lays out how the Teaching Excellence Framework – the cousin of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) – will likely work. Researchers are unlikely to be anticipating the extra administrative burden with any great relish. 

The research councils themselves face a reshuffle too. Nurse’s review suggests more centralisation and the councils have added their own ideas on saving money. The government is also looking for savings at the research councils.

All in all this is an uncertain time for research in the UK. With so much changing so fast let us hope that as well as knowing the price of everything, the politicians and bean counters can see the value of science too.